I read 125 books in 2017. A lot of those books are fiction. Of those fiction books I gave these sixteen “five stars” on Goodreads. What follows is a rundown of the best fiction I read in 2017.
Music In A Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey
Crumey is a physicist turned novelist and his fiction is concerned with alternate realities and history, usually inspired by the confusing nature of quantum mechanics. I loved his book Mobius Dick and so I picked up this, his first novel. The novel is a metanarrative about the writing of a novel but the story within the story is about the friendship between a physicist and historian living under a dystopian dictatorship. This book deals with the idea that the version of our lives that we live is one of infinite possible versions and we live the one we live at the expense of all the other paths that are stolen from us.
Die A Little by Megan Abbott
This is another established author’s first novel, and as such is in danger of being overlooked, but Abbott got it right the first time. This is a twisty little pulp crime novel, set in the 50s, with feminist overtones. Had it been written in the 50s it would have fit right in with pulp fiction at the time and its exploration of gender roles would have only been discussed later. Having read Abbott’s later works of “feminist noir” this one feels more natural and less academic than any of them.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
I already wrote a post about this book about a month ago. However, there are some spoilers for the first half of the book in that one. For somebody who wants to go in fresh, this brilliant book by South African novelist Coetzee details the downward spiral of a college professor who has an ill-advised affair with his teenage student. The book is an exploration of white male privilege and its protagonist is a real jerk, but that’s largely the point.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The great Japanese novelist writes three kinds of novels. The first kind are in the fantasy and science fiction genre and usually involve two or more storylines converging on each other. (Examples: The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore) The others are realist novels about loneliness, grief and loss. (Examples: Norwegian Wood, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, South of the Border, West of the Sun) The third kind were the ones that I found the least appealing. These were Kafkaesque mysteries that never get resolved and involve absurdist humor, magical realism and existential dread. Murakami started writing with this kind of novel and his “Rat trilogy” and later Dance, Dance, Dance, which seems to be a follow up to that trilogy of novels but parts of it contradict the earlier books. This year I became a Murakami completest in terms of his novels and short stories and I finally got what he was going for with this kind of book. Many consider this to be Murakami’s masterpiece and he may have decided that with the fifth attempt he finally got this book right because he has never returned to this kind of book again. Anyway, its an over six hundred page novel about an unemployed man whose life spirals out of control when his cat goes missing. You should read it!
Replay by Ken Grimwood
Technically, this is a time travel novel but it is far from conventional. The protagonist dies of a heart attack at the age of 43 and finds himself back in college at the age of 18 with the chance to do it all over again. He ends up caught in an endless cycle, each time dying on the same day at the age of 43 no matter what he does. When I started this book I knew it was a huge bestseller when it was first released in the 80s and still had impassioned admirers to this day, but I figured the premise was bound to go stale by the time I reached 400 pages. I was wrong. Grimwood introduces a twist about a third of the way through the novel that completely reinvigorates the premise and he wrings every last bit of drama and philosophical contemplation one can get from this premise before he is through.
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
Elgin was a linguist and had a theory that patriarchal attitudes were embedded in language, so she created Láadan, a feminist language for women. In order to introduce her language into popular culture she write this novel, which takes place in a dystopian society that has regressed back to the idea as women as legal property of their fathers and husbands. Did I mention there are aliens in it? The book is odd, witty and surprisingly fun for how bleak its subject matter is. The language never caught on but the book is still a fine work of feminist science fiction.
Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
Its hard to describe this Japanese author’s “feminist noir,” which is technically about murder but also so much more. With four unreliable narrators and sharp satire of both Japanese capitalism and the cut throat Japanese education system, Kirino gives her account of how Japanese society turns women into “monsters.”
Girl In Landscape by Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is a writer of great talent but he has an annoying writing tic. When he is being clever or “hip” he feels the need to call attention to it and self-consciously remind his readers how clever and hip he is. This has always gotten in the way of me fully enjoying his work but this is his most genuine and least self-conscious novel, a sci-fi western about homesteaders on an alien planet.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
About her novel, Kindred, Octavia Butler said that slavery was such a monstrous institution that portraying it to a modern audience realistically is too much. She suggested that the only way that you could really do it is have some kind of device like she did, in that case time travel. Whitehead takes a similar approach and he makes it work for him on the same level that it worked for Butler. His characters all feel like real people but the world they exist in is one that is fueled by metaphor to give a true since of the scars of slavery on the country. America is about myth making and Whitehead delivers his own myth about slavery here, that nonetheless gets at a great truth.
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
In October I read nothing but horror all month. The first book I tired was this H. G. Wells classic that many consider to be his best. They ain’t wrong.
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Despite that fact that this book has a lot of hype, I think it might actually be underrated. I think some people are afraid to give a book this sick and fucked up as high a rating as I am. This is a great example of body horror, but it also is a poignant tale of the loss of innocence, much like one of its obvious inspirations “Lord of the Flies.” I also love how it is structured with transcripts and news stories about the events, inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
This book has been controversial for years. Based on real events that occurred in Indiana in the 1950s, it is an unflinching portrayal of a teenage girl sent to live with a woman who subjects her to horrible abuse. Many detractors of this novel label it “pornographic” but there are few graphic descriptions of violence, relying instead on implication and careful study of human psychology. Few books have batter portrayed how human beings can rationalize the most unspeakable acts.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
James M. Cain is known for his crime novels but his masterpiece is this book, about a divorced woman in depression era America trying to build a new life for herself. The novel is a dark satire of American capitalism disguised as a lurid melodrama. Its also one of the few books of its time to deal with the difficulties of divorced women.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This is William Faulkner’s most difficult novel. It has multiple narrators, stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative and brutal Southern racism. If you can get past all of that it is one of the most beautifully written books in the English language.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
What this book is “about” seems rather simple. Clarissa Dalloway is a fifty year old woman throwing a party for old friends. What Virginia Woolf delivers is a deeply philosophical meditation on the choices we make in life and how we make them.
Jane Erye by Charlotte Bronte
Some of the books on this list are already recognized classics and this is probably the most famous one of all. Still, I never got around to reading it until this year. As far as its story goes this is a rather simple Gothic romance, but Bronte really elevated her material with stunning writing and weighty themes.